Date: 30th November 2017
I was in Kamakura towards the end of my Autumn 2017 Japan trip, hoping to see the autumn foliage which is usually at its best between late November to early December. The weather here was not as cold as Kyoto, so the colors were pretty much almost at their peak.
First stop was Engaku-ji (円覚寺), a temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The temple was established in 1282 during the Koan era by Hojo Tokimune, who was the 8th shikken (or Regent of the Shogunate) of the Kamakura Shogunate. Hojo Tokimune is famously known for his pivotal role in the battles against the invasion of Mongolia. A primary purpose of building Engaku-ji was to honor the soldiers lost (from both sides) during the battles.
Mugaku Sogen (or Bukko Kokushi), a Zen Buddhist monk from China, was invited by Hojo to spread Zen Buddhism in Japan in 1279. He was at first an abbot in Kencho-ji, the highest ranked temple of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kamakura (Kamakura Gozan). Mugaku Sogen also served as Hojo’s advisor, especially during the battles against the Mongol’s invasion and was later appointed as the founding priest of Engaku-ji.
Engaku-ji is also known as “The Temple of Spirit”, having survived multiple fires, deterioration and the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Zen Priest Seisetsu Shucho (Daiyu Kokushi) reconstructed the temple into its present form at the end of the Edo era. During the Meiji era, the temple was at the center of Zen teachings, attracting many unsui (zen novices) and koji (lay trainees) to practice Zen meditations under priests Imakita Kosen and Shaku Soen.
First you will see the Sanmon (Main Gate) which dates back to 1785 during the Tenmei era, when Seisetsu Shucho was reconstructing Engaku-ji. The calligraphy seen on the gate which reads “Engaku Kosho Zenji” was written by the retired Emperor Fushimi, the 92nd emperor of Japan. The upper floor enshrines the Eleven-faced Kannon (Bodhisattva), Juroku Rakan (the Sixteen Arhats) and Jūni Shinshō (the Twelve Heavenly Generals).
Next is the Butsuden (Main Hall), rebuilt in 1964 after it was destroyed in the 1923’s earthquake. Enshrined here is Hokan Shaka Nyorai (Buddha with a jeweled crown), the wooden seated statue dating back to the Kamakura period. There is a painting of a dragon on the ceiling of the hall by Moriya Tadashi, supervised by Maeda Seison, a leading painter of Nihonga (Japanese-style painting). The calligraphy seen on top of the building is written by Emperor Go-Kogon, the 4th Northern Court Emperor during the Nanboku-cho period.
Another building here is Kojirin, a zen meditation hall for koji (lay trainees). The hall is also used for meditation sessions for the general public.
A bigger building seen on the temple grounds is the Hojo, which used to be the abbot’s quarters but is now used for other functions such as meditations, sermons, exhibition etc. It is located next to a pond with a shape of the character 心, kokoro (heart).
The most important building is the Shariden (Relic Hall), which supposedly houses the tooth of Gautama Buddha, bestowed by Emperor Ningzong (of China’s Song Dynasty) to Minamoto no Sanetomo, the 3rd Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate.
The building was originally built in 1285 by Hojo Sadatoki (Hojo Tokimune’s son and the 9th shikken), but was later destroyed by a fire in 1563. The current building is from a Taiheiji convent in Nishi Mikado, dating back to the Muromachi period. The structure of the building is of the Kara-yo, introduced from China during the Kamakura period. Unfortunately, Shariden is usually closed to the public and can only be seen from afar.
Towards the end of the temple there is Kaikibyo, which is dedicated to Hojo Tokimune. This building is rebuilt in 1811, I could only see it from afar.
If you take the stairs up to the right of the Sanmon, you will be able to see the Ogane and Bentendo.
Ogane is a large bell of 2.6m, the largest of the bells in Kamakura and even Kanto region. It was casted by Hojo Sadatoki in 1301 during the Shonan era after he confined himself in Enoshima’s Benzaiten.
Next to it is Bentendo, dedicated to Enoshima’s Benzaiten. A grand ceremony is held between both temples every 60 years.
There is even a view from above which can be accompanied by tea and snacks at the tea house near Bentendo.
Engaku-ji has many different buildings and is very spacious, though a lot of those buildings are inaccessible. Visiting during autumn is highly recommended thanks to the beautiful autumn leaves around the temple.
Opening hours: 08:30 – 16:30 (until 16:00 from December to February)
Entrance fee: 300 yen
The temple is a short-walk from Kita-Kamakura station on the JR Yokosuka line. Kita-kamakura station is about 50 minutes away from Tokyo station via the JR line (800 yen).